The 16-year-old trailblazer (and daughter of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar) shares her best tips on organised activism and self-care “I can’t,” is the honest answer from Isra Hirsi, the co-founder of US Youth Climate Strike, when I ask if she too strikes from school on Fridays. “Striking every Friday is impossible for some people, including myself.” At only 16 years old, Isra Hirsi is already a big name in the climate action movement, standing up for the importance of realistic, inclusive, and safe activism for our planet. The Minnesotan teen also hails from a political powerhouse of a family: her mother is Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
The US Youth Climate Strike, and all the other global school strikes, are taking place because “our world leaders have yet to acknowledge, prioritise, or properly address our climate crisis”, says Isra. She adds, “marginalised communities across our nation – especially communities of colour, disabled communities, and low-income communities – are already disproportionately impacted by climate change.” Isra and other young people across the globe are trying to protect their futures.
Although Isra is still so young, she is wise beyond her years, full of confidence, and armed with a wealth of knowledge. Dazed talked with her over Skype, to ask for her best advice for any other young people who are thinking of joining the movement. Throughout our chat, her passion for intersectional climate activism, and compassion for those the crisis affects, shines through.
FIRST, MAKE IT INTERSECTIONAL AND INCLUSIVE
“I wasn’t aware of whitewashing when I joined (the movement) about a year and a half ago,” Isra explains. For youth of colour, getting involved in a climate action movement might feel ostracising if you’re the only person of colour in the room. “I guess the more I learned, the more I worked really hard to get more people like me involved and also working towards helping get white folks to fix the problems they created.” Isra suggests that people looking to get into environmental activism should by “joining inclusive groups or diverse groups led by people of colour or women of colour... put those people at the forefront of their own movement.”
Being so young, age discrimination is something Isra has experienced too. “People assume just because I’m 16, I don’t know anything. But in reality, I know what I’m doing – I’ve done my research.” She says the older and younger generations need to work together to fight climate change. “The older generations need to be allies, they’re more wise. While we’ve grown up with climate change, they’ve seen it happen as they’re older. I think it’s really important for them to support us and teachers and all of those things working towards supporting students in doing things like climate activism and helping to make it more accessible for young people.”
RECOGNISE ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM
For Isra, when it comes to discussing the environment, it’s crucial to talk about environmental racism – i.e., environmental and climate change issues that specifically affect black and brown communities. “There’s a pipeline being built in my state (Minnesota) and it’s going straight through indigenous treaty lands and sacred wild rice beds,” she explains. “This pipeline will destroy their water and their sacred wild rice and also just ruin their land. Some places are more privileged than others.” More than anything, we should make sure people “recognise their privilege in the movement”.
MAKE SURE YOUR ACTIVISM IS SAFE
“Knowing your rights is really important.” For Isra, this is paramount when it comes to climate action. She reiterates how critical it is to “prioritise safety over impact – because if people aren’t safe, what’s the point of impact?”
As far as US Youth Climate Strike is concerned, Isra says, “we try and avoid things like sit-ins or a lot of marches, only because we deal with so many minors – we don’t want any of them to get arrested – especially with youth of colour. We try and focus on really safe forms of activism so everybody can participate.”
KNOW WHEN TO STEP BACK AND TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
“It is a lot to handle, and it’s a full-time job,” says Isra, who is a high school student, juggling her school work along with her activism. “You have to make sure you balance time and that you get your priorities right.” Self-care is a must. “There are so many things that need to be tackled, but also you come first – make sure that you are OK enough to partake in that activism.”
“It’s making sure to take self-care days over the weekend. Take a step back. I try not to schedule calls or meetings during a certain time of the day that I need to take a break. Or knowing I need to get a reasonable amount of sleep so scheduling calls at a certain time. It’s just a balancing act,” Isra explains. “Activism is always going to be there, so whether or not you take a break for a week or a day you can still get plugged in because it’s always there.”
“There are so many things that need to be tackled, but also you come first – make sure that you are okay enough to partake in that activism” – Isra Hirsi
BE REALISTIC ABOUT YOUR GOALS
“It’s kind of impossible for me to skip school every Friday, even if it’s only a few periods,” Isra says. “I would get super behind. And I would end up going to court because of truancy laws.” As far as climate action goals go, “I don’t really set goals, I just roll with the punches.” But there are some key goals the US Youth Climate Strike try and hit. “I guess some of my goals are just generic ones, like making sure we hit all 50 states when it comes to our deep strike days, or making sure we get enough people involved. It’s really hard to have goals for something that’s so abstract. It isn’t dependent on me entirely – it’s dependent on so many people.”
JOIN A GROUP, OR CREATE ONE YOURSELF
“Connecting with people who do a lot of organising and trying to talk to them would be a good way to start,” Isra says, but if you can’t find a space that suits you, then you can go DIY. “Create your own group, because you can do that too. In high school, middle school or even with a group of your friends,” she says. “Just because it’s hard, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Everybody gets there at their own pace. It took me some time – it probably takes everybody some time. And whether or not you get media coverage or you get a great response it doesn’t mean what you’re doing is wrong. You should know what’s best for you and what you believe in, and nobody should be able to tell you any different.”